I have thus far avoided posting any of Sally Mann’s work because it is so well-known and ubiquitous that it seemed almost unnecessary, as anyone interested in my blog almost certainly has encountered her photographs. However, I will at some point make a long post with my take on her work. Until then, I felt the urge to post an image that is unusual for her in a number of ways. That image is ‘Three Graces.’ For one thing, it not only depicts her two daughters, Jessie and Virginia, but also the artist herself. All three are nude, grasping hands, and urinating. That’s right, urinating. It has long been taboo to feature urination or defecation in art, particularly for females—these acts are considered both extremely intimate and vulgar. And yet here it is an act of bonding between mother and children (a rather odd one to be sure), and therein lies the paradox.
Mann has pushed boundaries right and left with her photography, and this particular image is in some ways the apotheosis of her artistic perspective because it is controversial on several levels. Yet voiding our bladders is something we all do every day and have done since birth. The real reason I think it is so taboo is that peeing is done with the same organs we use for sex, and thus any depiction of children in the midst of urinating is bound to call attention to their sex organs. As the recent controversy involving sports blogger David Portnoy’s commentary on the size of Tom Brady’s toddler son’s penis makes clear, our society is growing ever more uptight about anything even remotely connecting children with sex, even if it’s done for humorous effect. This controversy, like the one surrounding the Vogue images of Thylane Blondeau, are beyond absurd to me. But then, I’m not a paranoid, puritanical twit. 🙂
Anyway, back to the Mann photo. The artist clearly recognized the taboo nature of pissing, and my impression, given the ironic title of the image, is that she was essentially (even if not doing so consciously) thumbing her nose at all those critics who characterized her work as obscenity or child pornography. After all, while the picture was taken in 1994, it wasn’t published until a few years later, right in the midst of her popularity and thus also the controversy. It’s like she and her daughters are pissing on the critics themselves and on traditional/patriarchal notions of femininity, and I respect that.
From Ron on May 20, 2012
I am told that Larry Mann expressed concerns to Sally about photographing her girls peeing (at a North Carolina exhibition). We should also not forget about “The Wet Bed”. Mann even poured cola on the bed to accentuate the shape of the mattress stain!
From Michelle on August 5, 2012
Your analysis is a bit off. You make no mention of the inspiration of this piece: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Graces_(Raphael)
It is not so much about pissing as it is about female empowerment and beauty.
From Pip Starr on August 5, 2011
Yeah, I didn’t mention the inspiration, as I took it for granted that the viewers would know, but I probably shouldn’t have. I agree with your point that the photo is in some sense about female empowerment and beauty, but then much of Mann’s work involving her daughters (and the other young girls she’s photographed) is, so that almost goes without saying. She frequently turns over traditional concepts of beauty with her photos of girls. But I still believe that, at least on some subconscious level if not consciously, that this image is a reaction to the controversy her nude child photos inspired, which was pretty rampant by the time this photo was taken. Having watched the documentary about Mann’s work involving her kids, it’s pretty clear to me that she has always regarded those critics with disapproval, if not outright disdain.
*Michelle’s point is well taken and I admit to having been hung up on the controversial and technical aspects of Mann’s photography. I can’t count the number of images I have seen where I thought, “Oh, that is this artist’s rendition of ‘The Three Graces’.” Although an artist’s intention may have had something to do with female “empowerment”—a concept developed by the women’s liberation movement of the past few decades—the original image is a pagan archetype representing the flow of energies in the world and was appropriated more or less by the early Catholic Church in the masculine form of the Holy Trinity—one of the sure indications of a patriarchal state -Ron (December 31, 2013)